Monday, December 31, 2012

Grant us, O Lord, an open mind, an eager heart, and a spirit ready and willing to recognize and receive your abundant grace. (Reflections on New Year's Day, 2013, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Luke 2:16-21)

A few years ago, I was assigned prefect of discipline (dean of men) at the major seminary in Manila. At that time, seminarians were just beginning to own cellular phones. (Prior to that everyone had to use the seminary’s communal phones.) Since owning a mobile phone was a new experience for everyone, and its impact on the lives of students had yet to be fully discovered, there were a number of priests on formation staff who wanted to simply forbid students from bringing their phones with them.

Others, who understood that the best way to deal with the advent of new technology is not to fight it, but learn how to responsibly deal with it (even make good use of it), decided that the best way to still allow students to bring their cell phones with them while at the same time prevent its use from being a constant distraction from their study and prayer, was to simply have them surrender the gadgets to the prefect as soon as they returned to seminary. They may then ask to use it whenever it were needed.

The arrangement was a little awkward, but it worked. Needless to say, outside my office door there was a basket that was constantly filled with phones with post-it notes tacked on to them, with their owners’ names. We all eventually got used to it even though I would learn from time to time that a student would forget to hand over his phone, or would simply keep his phone in his room, thinking perhaps I wouldn’t know since there were dozens of them. (I, of course, always checked. It was, after all, my job.)

One morning, while preaching at Mass, a phone suddenly began to ring. It was a very low ring, so it was barely audible; though everyone could still hear it. I stopped, looked at the seminary students sitting there in front of me, and asked: “Whose phone is that?” There was no reply. I paused briefly, then said, “Look you guys, we’ve had this arrangement for a number of months now and it has worked quite well. Granted, it’s awkward, but it’s the best arrangement we have right now. Besides, you can always ask me to use your phone. I don’t understand why some of you would still insist on keep them in your rooms. Now, whose phone is that?” 

By then, the phone had stopped ringing, but I still hadn’t resumed preaching as I was waiting for someone to come forward and own up to the whole thing. Finally, I issued a threat, “Listen, unless someone tells me whose phone that was, I’m not going to let you guys go home this coming weekend”. Suddenly, I noticed a hand go up. “Finally!” I thought to myself. “Was that phone yours?” I asked the brave young man who had raised his hand, rather sheepishly. “Uh, father, I think that phone was yours.” I reached into my pocket, and to my surprise—and horror—it was!

It was probably one of my most embarrassing moments; the phone which I would ordinarily never take with me when I have Mass, was right there, in my pocket, ringing during my homily. (It had no vibrate function and the ring wasn’t that loud.) Why didn’t I realize sooner that it was my phone? Why was I so quick to accuse my own students of not handing over their phones to me?

It was probably a mixture of a lot of things: being focused on the homily I was preaching, my ears not functioning well that early in the morning, or perhaps it was something else, something far less kind. Perhaps it was because in my mind, only one scenario was possible (and I was unconsciously so convinced of it): a phone ringing at Mass could only belong to a student, never to a priest, especially not the one presiding; and especially not myself! It was the sole perspective that directed my conclusion that morning. But it was wrong.

We all have ways of seeing things, of understanding and doing things. (Philosophers have sometimes used the more technical term “ways or modes of understanding” to refer to it.) They’re ways by which we make sense of things, our interactions and relationships, and our life as a whole. They assist us in our day to day living. They’re habits of mind, of affect, but also of heart and soul; and in themselves, they are neither good nor bad. They simply are.

The problem with these ways of understanding, however, is that they too often become ‘hard’ and ‘intractable’. Every once in a while, these very aids in making sense of our world, cease to become aids and become instead, hindrances, blinders that prevent us from seeing that there are other possible ‘ways of understanding, thinking, feeling, and doing’, that there are other paths that we may not have considered. What used to be an aid to living life suddenly becomes a stubborn, rigid, and inflexible definition of life itself. When that happens, we too become hardened, inflexible, rigid, and stubborn. “Been there; done that”; “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”; “I know”; are but some of the ways by which such stubbornness is sometimes expressed.

And yet, stubbornness itself isn’t always bad. A lot of times it actually works to one’s advantage. Think of tenacity and that stick-to-it attitude that eventually allows one to triumph over great adversity What is bad and deleterious to one’s growth, however, isn’t stubbornness, it’s obstinacy, stubbornness of heart; because it prevents one from discovering that there may actually be better paths, better ways of seeing, understanding and doing that one may not have seen before, and that one may not have tried. In the life of the soul (but also in one’s emotional and even intellectual life), obstinacy poses one of the greatest hindrances to not only to growth, but also to one’s receptivity to the gifts, graces, and blessings that God may be sending one’s way.

There are three important characters in today’s Gospel: Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. Imagine if each of them held on to their set ways of seeing or understanding things.

Imagine if Mary had said to Gabriel: “I am a virgin. I am not married. I have not had relations with a man. What would other people say if I suddenly became pregnant. Who would believe that I am bearing the Son of God? I cannot accept your word. I have my reputation to protect. I’m sorry, but no”. 

Imagine if Joseph had said: “I can’t accept Mary, or her child. I’ve never had relations with her. How do I know that she didn’t simply cheat on me. Sure I’d love to have a child carry my name; but I want it to be my own child, not a child with such uncertain origins. What would other people say; I have my reputation to protect. Besides, it simply wouldn’t feel right taking care of someone else's child. I’m sorry, but no”. 

Imagine if the shepherds had said to the angel: “All the ancient prophecies have pointed to a strong and powerful Messiah who would come and save Israel from its enemies and oppressors. Every single one of them has prophesied the coming of a mighty king. And you ask us to go and pay homage to an infant, in a manger? You want us to believe, against everything we have been taught, that this infant, born of poor parents, is the king of Israel? That’s too hard to believe and accept. It can’t be. We’re sorry, but no”.

[Deep inside, I think that’s what was going on when I was preaching at that Mass. Deep inside this train of thought was running: “You expect me to believe that I, a priest who has always been most conscientious about things, would neglect to turn off my phone during Mass? You expect me to believe that my students who are often careless in class and in other things, and who would sometimes hide the truth to get away with things, wouldn’t be the ones guilty of leaving their phone on during Mass? Sorry, that goes against everything I’m used to, no”. Obstinacy sometimes runs subtly, but it runs deep.]

We have before us a brand new year, a fresh start, a clean slate – ready to be written on, ready to be filled with God’s graces, gifts, and blessings—something that’s only truly possible, if we are ready and open to receive them.

One of the things I’ve learned from my close to two decades of teaching is that some of the most difficult students to teach and form are not the average or even weak ones. These, when they are willing to put in the extra effort and energy can actually be a joy to teach. The most difficult ones to form and teach are those who believe that they know everything and have therefore very little else to learn, those who are often so full of themselves that there is very little space left in their minds, hearts, and souls, for anything new to make its home, those whose ways of seeing, understanding, and doing, have becomes so rigid, inflexible, and obstinate, that no true ‘formation’ can really take place.

What is true of education is true of all of life, especially the spiritual life. Only a glass that is empty can still be filled, only a mind that is ready can be taught, only a spirit, a heart, and soul that has ceased to be rigid, stubborn, and inflexible, but has instead become open to the many new and amazing things God stands ready to reveal, can truly receive the many gifts, graces and blessings He is always willing to give.

A New Year is before us, a wide open door, a fresh start, a clean and clear slate. Let us keep our hearts, minds, and souls ready, empty of our selves, but open, and ready to be filled by a God who waits eagerly for us to welcome all the great and amazing things he has in store for us this year.

With Mary whose Feast as the Mother of God, we celebrate today, let us proclaim as she did when Gabriel visited her for the first time: “I am the Lord’s Servant. Let it be done to me, according to your word”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)